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Transformational leadership in a transformational classroom

Beautiful rugs and floor cushions replaced traditional classroom tables and chairs when high-potential supervisors from Saudi Aramco gathered in May 2013 for a Thunderbird Executive Education program in Ras Tanura, Saudi Arabia. The comfortable environment caught participants by surprise when they entered the room. Passersby heading to other events at the company’s Leadership Development Center even paused to peer inside, often asking if they also could partake in the class. Once the program content was explained, these observers would nod their heads in approval. Some even contemplated changing the layout of their own offices to evoke a similar environment.

While changing someone’s environment can impact performance, the program emphasized that real transformation must start with each individual. “The change must start from within,” Saudi Aramco CEO Khalid Al-Falih said. Leaders cannot expect to transform their teams, departments or organizations until they understand themselves and make necessary adjustments. Program manager Carol Hulst said the rugs and cushions helped start the journey of self-discovery. “Structure influences behavior,” she said. “A comfortable setting removes barriers and causes one to pause and reflect upon themselves.” 

The program was especially relevant for Saudi Aramco, a national oil and gas company looking to transform itself into a fully integrated, truly global energy and chemicals enterprise with extensive operations across the globe by 2020. Such an organization will need new leaders with new skillsets and expertise. To help high-potential supervisors reach the 2020 Vision, Saudi Aramco teamed with Thunderbird Executive Education to develop a customized multi-modular program.  Using a “Train the Trainer” model, Thunderbird developed the majority of the design, content and materials, then certified two Saudi Aramco facilitators to continue delivery of the program to future hi-potential supervisors.

The May 2013 workshop was part of the Professional Supervisors Leadership Development program, conducted over a five-to-six-month period with two four-day classroom/experiential learning modules, personal coaching and on-the-job experiences. The program culminates with a capstone event that allows participants to report on special projects completed as part of the program and the business impact of their work.

Already the program has produced results. Participants sitting on the rugs and floor cushions spoke of the transformation they already have witnessed or experienced at work and in their personal lives. The May 2013 workshop ended with teams of participants presenting videos they had produced about their transformational journeys thus far. 

“Once the participants began production, we immediately noticed the videos became a very effective vehicle for thinking about and presenting just what this Supervisors program had meant for them so far,” said Michael Haynie, a Leadership Development Adviser.  “Through mini scenes, personal statements and quotes that stood out for them — set to inspiring background tracks — they created a series of powerful presentations that had a tremendous emotional impact to everyone in the audience.”

Sophie Turner, another Leadership Development Adviser, reported similar results. “We felt privileged as coaches to play a small part in these participants’ progress and clearly understood why these individuals belonged in this program,” she said. “It left us reflecting on how exciting the journey for Aramco will be with these men and women leading from the front as we progress toward our 2020 vision.”

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